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Nailing Down Your 2020 E-Commerce Strategy  

Nailing Down Your 2020 E-Commerce Strategy  

If distributors started by focusing on these fundamentals, the industry as a whole could make some major strides with e-commerce in 2020.


On track to hit $6.6 trillion this year, B2B e-commerce sales are now double that of B2C online sales (forecast at $3.2 trillion). For U.S. companies, B2B e-commerce will account for more than $1.9 trillion in sales in 2020.

Despite these growing numbers, B2B sellers—electrical distributors included—are still missing the mark with digital buyers. According to Digital Commerce 360, many business buyers that procure via e-commerce give mediocre grades to the user experience they get on B2B websites. (Forty-seven percent of buyers rate the experience as “average” and 14% says it’s “fair.”)

“Only 36% of buyers score B2B websites as ‘good’ or ‘excellent,’” Digital Commerce 360 points out. The biggest complaints include a lack of transparency in shipping (for 76% of respondents), inaccurate customer information when placing an order (71%), no realistic product images (69%), inaccurate inventory (67%), and inadequate product content (67%).

“Where buyers think sellers are falling down on the job is in a poor user experience that keeps them in the dark about when products will be shipped,” Mark Brohan writes, “inaccurate information that gets in the way of fast, easy, and error-free order placement, and what they don’t see: enough images.”

Reducing Friction in the B2B Buying Experience

Justin King, author of “Digital Branch Secrets” and VP B2B Strategy at Salsify, agrees with Brohan’s conclusions, and says it’s time for electrical distributors to draw up some e-commerce-focused New Year’s resolutions. Borrowing a thought from Digital Darwinism author Tom Goodwin, King says that while drones, robotics, and blockchain rank among the sexiest new technologies being deployed in business today, simply using technology to reduce friction in the B2B buying experience should be top of mind for distributors.

“Tom tells his followers to use basic technology to make everything frictionless, reduce irrelevance, and create thoughtful content,” King notes. “Make every surface shoppable and serve customers far better than you are right now.”

Companies that need a logical starting point can use Digital Commerce 360’s list of buyer gripes as a guide. A high percentage of B2B customers complain about a lack of transparency, inaccurate information, no product images, and wrong inventory counts, for example. This leaves the door wide open for B2B sellers that can close those gaps and create a frictionless online buying experience.

Accurate Shipping Costs, Please

Looking specifically at the lack of transparency around shipping, King points to shipping costs as an area of improvement. Historically, distributors revealed shipping costs once an order shipped, and not when the order was placed. That’s because dimensional, weight, and other basic product data isn’t always available at the point of sale—an information gap that keeps customers in the dark about their shipping fees. “If you don’t have weights and dimensions on 50% of your products,” says King, “then you can’t calculate shipping on those items.”

But what if you did have that data readily available? “This is the year of product content,” says King, “and it starts with the supply chain data and the fact that every product has a dimensional weight.” Going deeper, those products are shipped on pallets of a certain size and packed in boxes of a certain weight. With this information in hand, distributors can not only estimate shipping costs, but also figure out how to store, transfer, and/or ship the goods.

Age-old pain points for distributors that rely on suppliers to provide product information, photos, and data, the next few B2B buyer gripes—a lack of realistic product images, inaccurate inventory, and inadequate product content—also deserve attention. To address these complaints, King says distributors can borrow a page from the retail playbook, which uses the GDSN standard (Global Data Synchronization Network) to share trusted product data.

By supporting accurate, real-time data sharing and trade item updates across subscribed trading partners, GDSN breaks down many of the content-related barriers that electrical distributors and others deal with on a daily basis.

“Originally adopted by the Walmarts, Targets, and Home Depots of the world, GDSN is a way of transferring content about a product from manufacturer to retailer,” King explains. “Because it contains all the supply chain content, instead of having to work out this peer-to-peer sharing—where the manufacturer has to send the information to distributors in a specific format—the data transfer is standardized.”

King sees GDSN as being very applicable for distributors whose websites are sorely in need of accurate, current product images, descriptions, specifications, and attributes. “There are a few large distributors that are looking at GDSN,” King says. “If they go in that [direction], I think the whole industry will start adopting it.”

Manufacturers who once held this type of information close to the vest are also warming up to the idea of a standard that would enable the fast, secure, accurate transfer of information to their valued distributors. “I’ve been talking to a lot of suppliers about the problem, and encouraging them to focus on collaborating with their distributors,” says King, “and provide them with better product, supply chain content, digital, and marketing content.”

King says suppliers like the idea, but most don’t like the idea of having to provide different types of content to 400 different distributors. “That’s why I think GDSN as a standard is one viable answer,” says King. “No one in B2B has adopted it yet, but this is something we’re definitely focusing on for 2020.”

Baby Steps to Success

As these broader issues around data sharing get hammered out, King says there are also some straightforward steps that all electrical distributors can take to start hitting the mark with their B2B customers in 2020. For one, he says companies should focus on creating an online shopping experience that’s easy, fast, and frictionless. Make sure customers can shop from their mobile devices while they’re standing out on the jobsite, for example, and develop a login system that doesn’t require buyers to jump through too many hoops to get into your e-commerce platform.

Focus on good transparency around products, pricing, and shipping, all of which matter a lot to online B2B buyers who can shop elsewhere with just one mouse click or screen tap. Finally, be sure to factor in both customer and employee adoption—or, how to get buyers and internal stakeholders to use the e-commerce platform on a consistent basis. “If distributors started by focusing on these fundamentals,” says King, “the industry could make some major strides with e-commerce in 2020.”


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Bridget McCrea  is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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